Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pneuma & Einstein

Trick question to start: is this a balloon? Yes, of course....well, technically, yes. This isn't a 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' trick question, is it? No, it's a regular trick question. OK.

Next trick question: is this a swimming pool? About as much as that balloon is a balloon.

Well, is it or isn't it? I don't like the question, stop annoying me.

These are pictures of real things, but they really aren't what I'm pressing you to say they are: a balloon, and a swimming pool. We know that their reality isn't complete without air and water, respectively. Obviously if we imagine balloons and pools, if we think about them as ideal forms, our image of each form includes the air and water.

The pool has two distinct physical parts, but conceptually they make a unity of 'poolness.' An empty pool is zero swimming pool; a few thousand gallons of water without a container is zero swimming pool. The same goes for the balloon and the air; let's just stick with the balloon at this point, since in class I bring a balloon, but not a swimming pool. The airless balloon has the potential of 'balloonness,' but without the air, it's just some rubber. Pointless. "Wow, those are great party balloons! When are we going to blow them up? We aren't...I like them better without any air in them." What?

Now the only reason we know the balloon has air inside it is we've blown up plenty of balloons. If you showed an inflated balloon (an ideal balloon?) to an isolated tribesman in Amazonia, he'd reasonably think it was a single entity. But after a day or so, it'd go flat. If you blew it back up, he'd learn that it was really two things: the rubber, and your breath. Plus he'd see it wasn't ideal, either. Ideal balloons don't go flat. Real ones do.

Einstein derived the formula E = mc² about a century ago. I love this's easier to understand than you might guess. E is energy, m is mass, and c² is the speed of light squared which as you may guess is a big, big, number with a whole lotta zeroes. Anyway the equation means that even a little piece of anything (remember the Flux Capacitor in 'Back to the Future'?) has a preposterous amount of energy in it at the subatomic level. I know you will be relieved that none of that 'matters' right now. Haw! What punishment! I kill myself.

What matters in this post is that the equation shows that Energy and Mass are interchangeable. Einstein said Energy and Mass are "manifestations of the same thing," sort of like 1 gallon = 4 quarts; or 1 pound of ice = 1 pound of water. We perceive Energy and Mass as different, intrinsically separate, as un-alike as two things can be, but our perceptions do not reflect reality. The reality is that at the most fundamental level of physical existence (not existence in the sense of life, but in the more absolute sense that there is anything at all, instead of an empty universe consisting of dissipated energy) matter is just very tightly bundled subatomic wads of energy. I am doing my best not to digress.

Oh, yeah, Pneuma. I forgot. Pneuma (πνεύμα) is Greek for breath or air, as in pneumonia or pneumatic. It also means soul, as does spiritus in Latin (breath, as in respire, aspire, perspire, transpire, inspire, expire, ok now I am digressing.)

We understand our souls animate our bodies as our breath 'animates' a balloon. Our souls & bodies go together, but are separate things, as are the rubber and the air; or the pool and the water. Body over here, soul over there; God puts 'em together, it's a unique person. Dirt + Pneuma = Adam. Remove the pneuma and you have a deflated balloon, a dead body. Yeah, that's so...but, but...

We know life isn't ideal....but don't we all think it should be, ought to be, ideal? It's just cosmic unfairness that balloons lose air, people do bad things, bad stuff happens like earthquakes. What's wrong with the tectonic plates? Stop that! I object to earthquakes on a moral basis! The universe is a mess! Yeah, it is. It's mess due to sin. As God said, "cursed is the ground because of you." The physical world is Fallen, not just we people, the moral agents. That's why, as St. Paul says, we see dimly. Not just spiritually, but physically.

So we can't see what's true about our individual creation: each of us is a continuous, whole person, which we perceive as as a body and a soul because sin blocks our full perception of our seamless selves, and also makes that unity imperfect. As Einstein observed that Energy and Matter are manifestations of the same thing, our bodies & souls are manifestations of the same thing, a person. But due to sin, Body & soul are separable. It's not normal, but it's what we're stuck with for the time being. The person is still ideally one essence, but sin pries the singular into two parts, by no coincidence into a part we can perceive, and another part we only dimly perceive, because sin also stunts our perception. (I imagine saints have no trouble seeing the unity of things we perceive only in parts.) As an ideal balloon doesn't lose its air, an ideal person doesn't lose his pneuma. An ideal person would of course also be sinless.... more than coincidence?

Anyway, somebody in the 20th century (no, not Sting) once described the body as simply the manifestation of the person in the material world, which is not the totality of our existence, but just the totality of what we can physically perceive, what we can measure. Yeah, but in Genesis God clearly made man out of two distinct parts, dirt and breath, body and soul, they're separate items combined by God to create one thing out of two, this is all silly carrying on about Einstein and balloons.

Well.....I don't think so. If all creation is an expression of God's love (Einstein might say God's energy) then the physical parts and non-physical parts are just...manifestations of the same thing...God's love. In fact, long before Einstein, Dante described the energy of the Universe as "L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle/ the love that moves the sun and the other stars." So matter, and thus my body, is just very tightly bundled subatomic wads of divine love. Although it's true that due to sin, the oneness, the continuity, is presently imperfect. So why do I care about this continuity business? Because it shows why Works are part of Faith. Faith & Works are not separable, they are manifestations of the same thing. What are Works? They're manifestations of Faith in the physical world. I can't view salvation as a soul issue but not a body issue. Oneness: believe/do. Don't believe/don't do. I can always say 'I believe x,' but I know I believe by what I do. Do I believe Jesus is our Savior, or am I just telling myself I believe? Well, do I act as though I believe? And of course the body can train the soul, that's why parents instill good habits in children, so that over time their bodies, physically trained in virtue, will likewise train their souls. Why, even Socrates* knew as much, and he was just a pagan: "Socrates, what should we aspire to? You should aspire to be virtuous. And how does one acquire virtue? By doing what virtuous people do." And in my own life I've stuck my neck out to do virtuous things I didn't want to do, only to discover that by the doing, my soul came to believe.

And the body/soul continuity also sheds particular light on Catholic sensibilities, especially with respect to the sacraments, and even Jesus Himself, a oneness of not just body & soul, but also God & Man.

*I think it was Socrates.